Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Forced out of my seat by an autistic boy

On my commute home one night last week, I hopped the subway and made a beeline for an empty window seat, as usual. I like taking the window seat for two reasons: First, I don't want to be that jerk who sits in an aisle seat with an empty window seat beside him, which effectively hogs both seats since people are usually too timid to climb over him. And second, I don't want to be that gentleman in the aisle seat who graciously gets up to offer his seat to the elderly and infirm. I'd rather shrug and make like I'm trapped in the window seat and I'd like to get up to give up my seat, but I can't, and anyway, the jerk in the aisle seat should be the one to do that.

However, because I get on the subway near the beginning of the line, both the aisle seat and the window seat were open at this point. So was the seat directly in front of me and the aisle and window seat across the aisle. The train travelled one stop, and then an older man with an obviously mentally handicapped teenage boy came lurching on. They could have had one seat to themselves, but instead, the older man put the pimply, vacant-eyed youth in the aisle seat next to me and took the seat next to me. And it's no wonder why: The kid sat uncomfortably close, pressing his leg into mine and breathing his stink breath on me.

Oh yeah, and he was babbling like a loon. I turned down my MP3 player to hear what he was saying. "Two-thirty," he said, "Two thirty." He deliberately lowered his voice like some developmentally handicapped radio announcer, playing around with different stresses and pitches on each repetition. "Mission accomplished ... mission accomplished ... mission accomplished." He said all this while turning and facing me, watching his reflection in the subway window, with the effect that he was more or less shouting in my face. I maintained a stone face and stared straight ahead. The last thing I wanted was to be drawn into conversation, if he was capable of conversation.

The subway operator announced the next stop, and the kid echoed the announcement in the same manner: "Old Mill station next. Old Mill station." It was increasingly apparent that he was autistic or something, and was just repeating everything he heard. He seemed to have the skill set of the average parrot, along with the mental capacity. Since I didn't have any crackers to offer him, I continued to stare forward stonily and pretend he wasn't shouting in my face. What mission, I wondered, had he accomplished earlier? Probably just getting on the subway was an accomplishment to be celebrated.

"Why are you so funny?" he asked. "Why are you so funny?" The limit of his conversational skills seemed to be to merely repeat words while remaining blissfully oblivious to their meaning. He'd obviously been asked why he was so funny in the past, no doubt without giving a coherent answer.

This is where I cracked, thinking about what other one-sided conversations he might have had in the past. I fully expected him to start cheerfully piping, "Shut up, you fucking retard! Shut up, you fucking retard! Shut up, you fucking retard!" I knew I couldn't keep a straight face if he started doing that, so I got up and changed seats.


Anonymous Maurs said...

I'd like to point out that the autistic have mental capacities that often exceed that of a normal human, but they are simply unable to communicate. To make a computer analogy, it's like having a server running dual athlon xp 3700+ chips, with 2 gigs of DDR533 RAM and a couple terabytes of hard drives in RAID 0+1 fashion, but whose I/O ports have been removed or severely damaged.

2/21/2005 11:35:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

That analogy does nothing to clarify the situation for me. Now I'm worried I'm having communication troubles and am stupid.

2/21/2005 11:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Maurs said...

Well, perhaps that was an extravagantly geeky analogy. Let me try again, this time with cars. It's like putting a V12 engine into a Yugo. And then taking the steering wheel and the tires off. The insides are pretty darn neat, but they just can't transfer that to the outside, where it could be appreciated.

2/24/2005 11:06:00 PM  

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